Inviting Dr. Phil to join us in the in-between

One more note on Phil McGraw’s (TV’s “Dr. Phil’s”) advice to a mother whose son was playing with Barbies and preferring girls’ clothes . . .

I think it’s interesting how important McGraw seems to find it to make a pronouncement of meaning; he spends at least as much time explaining what is or is not the significance of such behavior as he does providing advice on how to respond. He seems to believe he is expected to provide the “one right answer.”

“There are developmental stages in kids and it is not unusual, particularly for young boys, to experiment and get stuck on certain stimulus items,” says Dr. Phil. Particularly because the little boy has two older sisters, he says, it’s not unusual.

“This is not a precursor to your son being gay,” explains Dr. Phil. He’ll know that in time, but this is not an indication of his sexual orientation.

Well, McGraw, you’re a little off on your definitive assertion that preferring girls’ clothes and playing with Barbies has no correlation to being gay. The Children’s National Medical Center’s brochure for parents concerned about their children’s gender behaviors states,”research on boys with gender-variant histories suggests that most of them have a same-sex orientation (i.e., they are gay).”

You would be right to tell the inquiring mother that there are several possible reasons and outcomes for her son’s behavior and you don’t know one is true. He might be enjoying fantasy play as do all normal four and five year old kids. He might be copying his older sisters out of admiration, or out of a belief that they receive more attention than he does. He might be gay, or he might be one of many straight men who report being more gentle and artistic than rough-and-tumble as kids. Or he may (more rarely) be transgendered and either eventually identify more as female or identify in a more complex way with both genders or in between them.

Welcome to the world of in-between, Dr. Phil! This is where my family and others like us live, those of us with kids who express themselves in ways unsupported by narrow traditional gendered options. We fight to hold open a space between for them to become who they will be in a world impatient for simplistic answers and reasons, a world made uncomfortable by ambiguity, paradox, and multiplicity. Some of us have a pretty good idea of where our kids are headed by age 5; many more of us have no idea. What we know is that they are going to be who they will be. We know (as the brochure states) that, “gender variance is not caused by an emotional disorder.However, because of societal prejudice, children with gender-variant traits may experience ongoing rejection, criticism and
bullying causing adjustment difficulties.”

I’m hard pressed to find examples of teen and adult boys who report feeling permanent trauma or damage from being allowed to play with Barbies or wear dresses. On the other hand, I have heard many testimonies from teen and adult boys about the pain and trauma of being teased and not being allowed to be themselves as kids. As this advice was apparently repeated from a Dr. Phil TV segment from years ago, I would like to ask McGraw if he has developed a more nuanced view in the last eight or nine years. (And if so, to please share it publicly.)

And I’d also like to ask McGraw and others like him to quit trying to compress the space between. This includes

  • TV shows and documentaries who only want to focus on the most dramatic gender-variant kids who transition to a different gender at a young age
  • Trans advocates who view folks in the middle of the gender spectrum as “too scared to come out” or who urge complexly gendered kids to declare themselves trans
  • People whose belief system prejudices them against the realities of complex gender expression who then turn that prejudice on innocent toddlers and children.

It might make your world more tidy to have two neat and separate gender possibilities, but when you squish out the space between, you do not accurately represent lived reality. More than that, you’re trying to “squish out” my kid.

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3 Responses to Inviting Dr. Phil to join us in the in-between

  1. Pingback: . . . The Answer, of Course, Is Nothing | Pink Is for Boys

  2. Pingback: Pink Is for Boys

  3. Pingback: Gender-box breaking photo-essay selected for festival | Pink Is for Boys

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